Cultural barriers

Many of the posts at this blog have discussed linguistic barriers confronted by the translator, particularly those that relate to grammatical conventions and other forms of usage that complicate the translator’s task. Cultural barriers are also a ticklish issue, however, and are just as apt to leave the translator grasping at straws. Of course it’s important to take cultural habits and mores into account when translating a text. In many cases, a few slight modifications suffice to adapt a text for an alternate cultural audience. Conventions in letter writing furnish an interesting example of this fact: In letters from German companies to customers or employees, the salutation “Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren” is often used. A direct translation would be strange here: “Ladies and Gentleman” is acceptable for a public address, but not the start of a letter. The translator must recognize this fact and adjust the salutation accordingly.

Yet even with an ample dose of cultural sensitivity, the translator may confront problems that render a satisfactory adaptation nearly impossible. Christiane (my partner) is currently translating a sales-team training booklet for a large American sportswear manufacturer (that is expanding to Germany). In the text, various ways of approaching customers in a store are discussed. The text distinguishes between approaches that concern service (e.g. “How can I help you?”) and those that are merely “social” in nature (e.g. “Nice weather, isn’t it?” or “Hello, how are you?”). While it would be possible here to render a direct translation, the text is in fact discussing social practices that don’t exist in Germany. “How are you doing?” is, quite simply, a question one never asks of strangers in Germany. From a German perspective, such behavior would be considered highly “superficial,” and, I suppose, “typically American.” In German stores, sales clerks generally leave customers alone. If they do initiate a conversation, then they do so to ask if they can be of assistance. Comments about the weather apropos of nothing would invite curious looks from potential customers.

Clearly, the text needs to be adapted to German social practices. The example above is admittedly an unusual instance of cultural discontinuity. Normally the cultural barriers confronted in a text – when translating between German and English, at least – are of a more manageable nature. The translator’s job is to adapt the target text based on its intended uses as well as to communicate with the customer about such problems, particularly when considerable changes would be required.